Suilven in the north west of Scotland is a magnificent mountain. It's not a Munro, it's not a Corbett, but it remains magnificent. For Suilven is wonderfully remote, breathtakingly craggy and blessed with the sort of scenic panoramas that prompt a landscape photographer out of bed in the wee small hours of the morning.
From the point of view of the hillwalker and scrambler, Suilven's main charm ' its remoteness ' is also its principle drawback. The walk in from either east or west takes forever ' an uninspiring plod across empty moor. Approaching, there is always the thrill of the peak to keep you motivated. On the way out, however, tired legs make for a tedious tramp.
There is, thankfully, an alternative and it enables the explorer to experience a trio of exhilarating outdoor activities ' walking, scrambling and kayaking. To the south of Suilven lies Loch Veyatie, a relatively narrow ribbon of water that, as luck would have it, links the mountain with the main road north from Ullapool. Clearly when God created Suilven he wanted people to see it close up and personal.
Our expedition into the wild bounds of Sutherland began in the tiny crofting hamlet of Elphin, 14 miles north of Ullapool. The week before we set off we equipped ourselves with a pair of Perception Carolina Expedition sea kayaks from Stirling Canoes. They also supplied the various other bits and bobs we would need ' spraydecks, paddles, cagoules, and the all important buoyancy aids. We had considered an open canoe but I've always found sea kayaks to be a more pleasurable way to travel on water and the generous sealed hatches on the Carolina offered plenty of storage space, both fore and aft, allowing us to take more than we would normally had we had to lug all our stuff in on our backs.
We drove north in convoy, the boats lashed to roofracks, and after a hearty fried breakfast in Ullapool, we were ready to embark upon our voyage. Our aim was to launch the kayaks at the eastern end of Loch Veyatie and the OS map shows a handy track, leading down to the edge of the water from Elphin. This is well used by fishermen but is unfortunately guarded by a locked gate. After making inquiries locally, we managed to procure a key, saving a backbreaking 500-metre portage. Another option is to launch on to Cam Loch at Elphin cemetery and paddle through the Abhainn Mor into Loch Veyatie but there are weirs and waterfalls on the stream to negotiate.
After a formal launch ceremony involving a couple of Guinness miniatures, the newly christened 'Britney' and 'Kylie' slipped out on to a rather choppy Loch Veyatie. Conditions were relatively favourable, with the wind behind us, but as we progressed the weather became increasingly fresh and the prevailing breeze did its best to force us into the shore. As we paddled hard, the black water beneath us became increasingly volatile, waves breaking with crisp white heads as the kayaks rose alarmingly and crashed back down with all the rhythm of a heavy metal track. This was not what we had expected in a summer paddle up an inland loch. Throughout this battle of man against the elements, our craft remained remarkable stable, helped by the weight of equipment they were carrying, and to compensate for the rather inclement conditions, there were some fine views of Suilven, to the north-west, and its neighbour, Cul Mor, to the south-west. At least it wasn't raining.
Unfortunately, however, that was not to last. At the head of the loch we found some shelter from the wind in the shallow channel linking Veyatie with Fionn Loch but the heavens opened and Suilven ' just a mile away as the crow flies ' was lost beneath a plump duvet of grey cloud.
When the river finally became too shallow to continue, we hauled the kayaks out and, clutching a burly assortment of black plastic bin bags loaded with kit, set off in search of a place to pitch our tents. It soon became apparent, however, that this part of Scotland is not exactly blessed with campsites. Just about every inch of the heathery ground sinks beneath increasingly soggy feet and it took a good hour of frustrating, sweaty plodding up and down a plethora of craggy knolls before we found a smidgen of relatively dry grass just big enough to accommodate our two tents. To be fair, it was an impressive spot, situated as it was at the base of sheer 40 metre high cliffs.
With the rain battering down, we retreated under canvas and anxiously waited for a break in the clouds. After supper, our patience was rewarded and we set off, intent on making a late-in-the-day bid for the summit. But, as we clambered across rocky outcrops and spongy marsh towards the base of Suilven, grey clouds rode in and, once again, we were forced back to our tents. So much for summer in Scotland.
The postcard image of Suilven is of two lofty foreboding peaks, prehistoric in their appearance, rising dramatically from the moor and guarded on all sides by steep black cliffs. From our vantage point, however, the mountain displayed itself as a long ridge, the crown-like summit, Caisteal Liath (731 metres/2399 feet), at the west end, and the slightly lower top of Meall Meadhonach (723 metres/2300 feet), lying a kilometre to the east, a ridge of Torridonian sandstone connecting the two.
Approaching from the south, our intended route up to Bealach Mor, the lowest point on the ridge, looked almost vertical. As we neared, it appeared more welcoming but the path, which snakes up under pinnacles of rock, was grueling nonetheless. Heavy cloud hung low over the mountain and, as we hauled ourselves on to the airy pass, we were enveloped by it.
An obvious path leads up to the cairn on the grassy top of Caisteal Liath, some easy scrambling required. Bizarrely, not far from the bealach the path goes through a gap in a neat stone wall built at right angles across the ridge. Some say this was created to prevent deer wandering on to Caisteal Liath and then tumbling over the steep cliffs that encircle the summit. But one would have to question how and why the creatures were up here in the first place and, if this was the case, why leave a gap in it?
The path along the ridge is the only way on to and off Caisteal Liath for the walker so, with no views to be had thanks to the thick mist, we retraced steps to the pass. Our intention had been to traverse the spine of Suilven, continuing east over Meall Meadhonach and Meall Bheag, a route that promised some challenging scrambling. However, poor visibility, rain and a chilly wind put the brakes firmly on such an adventure and we headed back down to our campsite.
As is all too often the case in Scotland, the weather perked up significantly as we dragged our black bags back to the kayaks and, as we paddled back down Loch Veyatie, the sun even had the nerve to shine.
Perception Carolina Expedition
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Distance 10 miles/16km, paddling; 4 miles/6km (to summit of Caisteal Liath and back), walking.
Map OS Landranger sheet 15.
Start/parking We put our kayaks in at GR NC 209123, at the end of the track down from Elphin. There is a gate at the top of the track that is more often than not kept locked by the estate. The ground it passes through is common grazing land and all the local crofters have a key, so ask around locally. Don't leave cars at the bottom of the track ' park them in the layby at the top (GR NC 215119).
Estate contact Assynt Estates, Lochinver Lodge, Lochinver, Lairig, IV27 4LH.
Camping It's possible to paddle a fair way up Uidh Fhearna, the river linking Loch Veyatie with Fionn Loch, but not all the way through. However, it's worth hauling your boat through to Fionn Loch as it has a number of grassy banks at its south-eastern end where you can pitch. One of the best spots we found was at the ruin of an old shieling (dry, grassy and flat) at GR NC 145167. We camped at GR NC 148166 it was a good spot (flat, sheltered but a bit damp) but not as good as the old sheiling.
Fishing Loch Veyatie and Fionn Loch are used by fishermen, fishing from both boats and the banks ' give them plenty of space.
Supplies Ullapool has a good range of shops (including a Safeway supermarket), plus an outdoor store. Elphin has a tearoom, but nothing more.
Accommodation There are B&Bs, hotels, hostels (including SYHA) and an excellent campsite in Ullapool (Broomfield, on the seafront). There are also B&Bs in Elphin.
Midges Sutherland has a very high midge count.